Religious life in early America is often equated with the fire-and-brimstone Puritanism best embodied by the theology of Cotton Mather. Yet, by the nineteenth century, American theology had shifted dramatically away from the severe European traditions directly descended from the Protestant Reformation, of which Puritanism was in the United States the most influential. In its place arose a singularly American set of beliefs. In America's God, Mark Noll has written a biography of this new American ethos.
In the 125 years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, theology played an extraordinarily important role in American public and private life. Its evolution had a profound impact on America's self-definition. The changes taking place in American theology during this period were marked by heightened spiritual inwardness, a new confidence in individual reason, and an attentiveness to the economic and market realities of Western life. Vividly set in the social and political events of the age, America's God is replete with the figures who made up the early American intellectual landscape, from theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, Nathaniel W. Taylor, William Ellery Channing, and Charles Hodge and religiously inspired writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Stowe to dominant political leaders of the day like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The contributions of these thinkers combined with the religious revival of the 1740s, colonial warfare with France, the consuming struggle for independence, and the rise of evangelical Protestantism to form a common intellectual coinage based on a rising republicanism and commonsense principles. As this Christian republicanism affirmed itself, it imbued in dedicated Christians a conviction that the Bible supported their beliefs over those of all others. Tragically, this sense of religious purpose set the stage for the Civil War, as the conviction of Christians both North and South that God was on their side served to deepen a schism that would soon rend the young nation asunder.
Mark Noll has given us the definitive history of Christian theology in America from the time of Jonathan Edwards to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It is a story of a flexible and creative theological energy that over time forged a guiding national ideology the legacies of which remain with us to this day.
This "social history of theology" in America, from the colonial era through the Civil War, promises to reshape the way we think about American religion, and, indeed, American history. Noll, who teaches history at evangelicalism's premier liberal arts college, Wheaton, charts the changes and developments in American theology, but he does not approach this potentially technical and narrow topic from the fusty perspective of old-fashioned intellectual history. Rather, he embeds theology in American society, showing how, inter alia, printing presses, legislatures and war shaped, and were shaped by, theology. His gauntlet-throwing argument is that American theology (by which he means primarily Protestant theology) is markedly different from European theology. A specifically American evangelicalism, he contends, was forged during the Revolution and early Republic. Noll's story ends with the Civil War, which he claims reveals a "theological tragedy": the contradictions and complications of this distinctly American religion were exposed when, in war, the American project proved wanting. Noll's hints of the "post-Protestant, even post-Christian" post-bellum America will leave readers hoping for a sequel. Although this magnum opus will be of interest primarily to scholars, it could certainly be appreciated by a larger audience. Noll's trademark clarity-both in analysis and in prose-is in evidence here; unlike many academics, he does not make the reader hunt and strain to find (and follow) his argument. Equally obvious is Noll's erudite mastery of everything from Puritan ecclesiology to Scottish moral philosophy. This is, finally, the magisterial work that has long been expected from one of our leading historians. (Oct.)